A Just Vacation

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Image by Flickr user: Latin America for Less / Creative Commons

A vacation in and of itself is a luxury. For many, though, a vacation doesn’t count unless it’s luxurious. Life, the thinking goes, is called the daily grind for good reason, and hard workers on holiday are entitled to a little pampering. Trouble is, what it takes to indulge the modern traveler often leads to the exploitation of scarce natural resources, of laborers, and of the unique, often fragile customs and rituals of other cultures.

“The leisure industry is the world’s largest, accounting for 10.4 percent of the world gross domestic product,” Malia Everette, director of the Reality Tours program of the international human rights organization Global Exchange, tells Green Money Journal (Summer 2006). “The industry provides 4 percent of global employment and $3 trillion in annual trade . . . Tourism is growing up to 23 percent faster than the world economy at large.”

In principle, a record number of people traveling greater distances should be a boon to the developing nations and distant lands that need an economic boost. Unfortunately, most tourist dollars are going to the people who need it least. Relatively affluent vacationers might be going to Nepal and Trinidad and Kenya in droves, but a majority of their money goes to tour operators from more developed countries, typically in the West, who make it convenient to book the trip but keep most of the profit for themselves. These companies also have a tendency to put their clients in sterilized, Westernized (and Western-owned) accommodations, which not only are removed from the native culture but also often hoard scarce natural resources.

Ecotourism, a travel philosophy that encourages respect for the natural world, can’t fully address this growing global dilemma, which is why a new code, called ethical travel, is emerging.

The generally accepted principles of ethical travel include making tourism profitable to the host countries; fostering cultural education and exchange in pursuit of positive, authentic local experiences; and reducing environmental impact. In short, according to Polly Pattullo, author of The Ethical Travel Guide (Earthscan, 2006), the goal is to make sure that vacationers “seek to minimize the negative impacts of tourism and maximize the potential economic (and other) benefits to host [countries].”

Proponents of ethical travel believe that continuing to travel the globe is not only necessary, it’s vitally important. The trick is how you travel, not if you do. “Today, more than ever, we’re utterly convinced of the incredible importance of travel,” writes Tony Wheeler in the new Lonely Planet guidebook Code Green (Lonely Planet, 2006). “It’s only through traveling, through meeting people, that we begin to understand that we’re all sharing this world and all coming along for the ride.”

The first steps toward transforming a journey into a responsible adventure involve education and commitment. Travelers can read up on local customs, traditions, and language, and find locally owned and operated hotels, restaurants, and other services that eschew earth-dirtying practices.

The UK-based organization Tourism Concern offers resources for and valuable information on traveling responsibly worldwide. Ethical Traveler, a project of the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, sponsors campaigns to raise awareness about pressing issues in various countries and offers travelers an exhaustive directory documenting everything from a country’s history to its language to practical tips. (It’s a simple thing, for instance, to learn the basic courtesy phrases of a host country. Even a butchered attempt at banter helps break down cultural walls.)

An example of a more complicated issue, writes Jeff Greenwald on EthicalTraveler.org, is the matter of begging, which is increasingly pervasive in Third World countries. Giving money encourages behavior that, in the eyes of ethical travelers, rarely does any lasting economic good and often leads to unforeseen consequences. Most children who beg want to be entertained and educated–they don’t really want, and shouldn’t really have, the one rupee they ask for. Seize the moment to show them a picture of your home or family instead, says Greenwald; they will be mesmerized, and you will not be participating in a growing cycle of dependence.

Responsible travelers also must be committed to redefining for themselves what leisure travel entails. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon dreams of luxury on your next vacation. Ethical travel is about a shift in mind-set, not expectations. It is not, as Pattullo writes, “a wearisome social work project disguised as pleasure”; it is a holiday full of relaxation and adventure, leisure and discovery.

“Surprisingly, sustainable can also mean comfortable or stylish,” writes Wheeler. “It can even include a touch of luxury.”

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